Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1963) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Bookended by disaster – a ship turning turtle, fire raging in the big tent – and kept aloft by giddy circus turns this long-ignored movie in the John Wayne canon is ripe for reassessment. In more down-to-earth mold, with no villains to rein in, no gun-toting required, this calls upon something more basic from the actor, the dramatic skill required to make the audience fix on a strong character within a spectacular screen event.

Presented in stunning Super Technirama, the swansong of maverick producer Samuel Bronston (El Cid, 1961), and mistakenly viewed as little more than a travelog or a compendium of circus acts, this dwells instead on transition and loss as Matt Masters (John Wayne) struggles to allow adopted daughter Toni (Claudia Cardinale) to grow up and to come to terms with the part he played in the romantic calamity – father a high-wire suicide, acrobatic mother Lili (Rita Hayworth) fleeing to Europe – that left her parentless.  

It’s no coincidence that sending his three-ring circus cum Wild West Show on a lucrative tour of Europe in the early part of the 20th century provides an opportunity to hunt for Lili, the love of his life. But the circus ship capsizes in Barcelona, leaving Masters penniless, forced to  work for a rival European promoter until he can scrape together enough dough to start again. Masters uses the opportunity of traveling through European capitals to scout new acts, including clown Aldo (Richard Conte), a lion-tamer turned tiger-tamer Emile (Hans Dante), and ballerina Katharyna (Giovana) who performs on the high wire while Toni wants to chance her arm against Matt’s objections as an acrobat and flex her romantic muscles in romantic dalliance with Matt’s new partner Steve (John Smith).

The subplots add dramatic heft, the lion-tamer is frightened of tigers, Aldo has vengeance in mind, so in between the scintillating circus acts the storyline is compressed around the drink- and guilt-sodden Lili and conflict on several fronts with Toni while old retainer Cap (Lloyd Nolan) is on hand to pep up or challenge Matt.

You wouldn’t be allowed to make this kind of film these days so it’s worth glorying in the glory days of the circus – dancing horses, lions, tigers, elephants, acrobats and genuinely hilarious clown sequences. It being a three-ring circus there’s always something going on, plus the Wild West element which comprises a stagecoach being attacked.

John Wayne is as befuddled as ever in romance, restricting his trademark double take to astonishment at Tony’s transition to womanhood. There’s an occasional reversal but mostly  it’s a battle against the odds, potential triumph leavened by gritty loss.

A modern producer would have switched the disasters – it didn’t really matter how Matt got into a fix. But the capsizing, appearing so early the effect is stunning, is brilliantly handled, not just the rescue of people and animals but Matt in lion-taming mode and ending with a clever coda. In every photograph Lili’s face has been scratched out but in among the saturated notes of Matt’s vital cash box is a picture of her.

Some critics have suggested John Wayne (In Harm’s Way, 1965), recovering from his own financial debacle caused by over-investment in The Alamo (1960), took the role for financial expediency. But I can see the attraction, as I’m sure the actor did. This is a far more rounded character than anything since The Searchers (1956) and he can’t even find redemption from a six-shooter. He’s more protective than aggressive, paternal instinct triggering character reaction, and it’s more of a James Stewart type of role, coming back from adversity, and nothing straightforward about a man whose love affair caused marital disaster.

Critics have also taken pot-shots at Claudia Cardinale (The Pink Panther, 1963) as if she was not already an accomplished actress (a favorite of Visconti, for example) in a compelling role and competing on even terms with a star of John Wayne’s charisma without being able to fall back on the old saw of the romantic interest. Although playing a character nearly a decade younger, Cardinale  brings an earthy feistiness to a character with a bucket of decisions to make, turning on its head her relationship with Matt and going through the dramatic hoops with Lili.

Rita Hayworth (The Happy Thieves, 1961) has shucked off the glamor, a worn-down relic of her former self, turning to drink and religion in equal measure in vain hope of finding peace. Veteran Lloyd Nolan (The Double Man, 1967) and Richard Conte (Assault on a Queen, 1966) hold their own, but John Smith (Waco, 1966) does not. Look out for former British star Kay Walsh (A Study in Terror, 1965).  

Henry Hathaway (5 Card Stud, 1968) does a terrific job marshalling all the elements, containing the core family drama within the wider action-oriented structure. While there’s never a dull moment, in among all the spectacular scenes are some exhibiting a particularly sensitive directorial touch such as when Matt discovers Lili’s hotel room and reflects on his own misdemeanors.

There were almost as many writers as circus performers – James Edward Grant (The Commancheros, 1961), Ben Hecht (Spellbound, 1945), Julian Zimet (A Place for Lovers, 1968), Bernard Gordon (55 Days at Peking, 1963), Nicholas Ray (The Savage Innocents, 1960) and Philip Yordan (El Cid).

Come at it from the fun perspective and you won’t go wrong. John Wayne completists will adore it.

I was lucky enough to see this is full glorious widescreen at the cinema where it was the Closing Film at this year’s  Widescreen Weekend in Bradford. What a way to end a show!

Ice Station Zebra (1969) ****

John Sturges’ Alistair Maclean Cold War thriller, released within months of the more action-oriented Where Eagles Dare, twists and turns as Americans in a nuclear submarine and the Soviet Union race to the Arctic to retrieve a fallen space capsule containing a deadly secret. Thoroughly enjoyable hokum filmed in Cinerama 70mm with an earworm of a booming theme from Michel Legrand and mostly outstanding special effects.

Nuke sub Commander Ferraday (Rock Hudson), despatched from Scotland, and believing he is only on a last-gasp mission to the save scientists at a stricken weather station, is somewhat surprised to be forced to carry as passengers arrogant British secret service agent David Jones (Patrick McGoohan) and Russian defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine), the former refusing to divulge the reasons for being on board. From the outset the vessel is afflicted by sabotage and the cruel ice. Tensions mount further as they reach the Ice Station Zebra weather station. Since so much depends on mystery in a MacLean thriller, any other revelations would amount to significant plot spoilers.

So while there’s more than enough going on among the various characters and a plot that shifts like a teutonic plate, it’s the submarine section that proves the most riveting, the dives exhilarating. The underwater photography is superb in part thanks to an invention by second unit cameraman John M. Stephens which could film for the first time a continuous dive. Whether the sub is submerging, surfacing, puncturing the ice or in danger of being crushed to smithereens, it’s the nuke that takes centre stage, a significant achievement in the days before CGI.

Not all the effects are quite so top-notch, there’s some dodgy back projection, and the Arctic rocks look fake, but in general, especially with streamlined control panels, jargon spat out at pace, and sub interiors that appear realistic, the result of two years research, it’s a more than solid job, delivering the core of a Saturday night action picture.

The absence of a giant Cinerama screen does not detract from the movie – though if you get the chance to see it in 70mm, as I once did, jump at it – because the Super Panavision cameras capture in enormous detail the bow spray, the massive icebergs, the gleaming intricacy of the controls, and even the sea parting under the weight of the sub creates astonishing visuals. And there’s something inherently dramatic in the commander slapping down the periscope.

Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) is back to straightforward leading man duty after his departure into paranoia in Seconds (1966) and he is burdened with both a chunk of exposition and having to develop a stiff upper lip in response to the secret agent’s reluctance to take him into his confidence. He comes more into his own in the action sequences. The tight-lipped brusque provocative McGoohan (Dr Syn, 1963) clearly has a ball as mischief-maker-in-chief, keeping everyone else on tenterhooks. Ernest Borgnine (The Wild Bunch, 1969) invests his character with wide-eyed charm at the same time as the audience doubts his credentials. Jim Brown (The Split, 1968) has little more than an extended cameo as the Marines’ chief and in smaller roles you can also spot future Oscar-winning producer Tony Bill (Castle Keep, 1969) and veteran Lloyd  Nolan (The Double Man, 1967).

This was the second MacLean adaptation for John Sturges (The Satan Bug, 1965) and he keeps a tighter grip on proceedings, a $10 million budget ensuring he could make the movie he envisaged, part-thriller, part-high adventure with well-orchestrated slugs of action.

The Double Man (1967) ***

A bit more action and this could have been a John Wick-style winner because C.I.A. agent Dan Slater (Yul Brynner) is a big-time bad ass, all steely stare and resolve, and no time for anyone who gets in his way as he investigates the unexpected death of his son in the Austrian Alps.

It’s probably not this picture’s fault that any time a cable car hovers into view I expect to see Clint Eastwood or Richard Burton clambering atop all set to cause chaos, or any time a skier takes off down the slopes anticipate some James Bond malarkey. Luckily, director Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, 1968) avoids inviting comparison in those areas but rather too much reliance on the tourist elements of the ski world puffs out what would otherwise be a tighter storyline. And he also sets too much store by loud music to warn the audience of impending danger.

Slater is out of the ruthless espionage mold and, convinced on paltry evidence that his son has been murdered, determines to track down the perpetrators. There is a reversal of the usual plot in that those he asks for help are unwilling to give it, retired agent Frank Wheatly (Clive Revill) and chalet girl deluxe Gina (Britt Ekland) who initially views him as an older man to be fended off but turns out to have the vital information he seeks.

There’s a lot of tension but not much action and today’s modern vigilante would have beaten the information out of anybody who crossed his path rather than taking Slater’s path. Despite this, the relentless tone set by Slater ensures violent explosion is imminent. To be sure, you will probably guess early on, from the appearance at the outset of some Russians, that Slater is heading into a trap, but the reasons are kept hidden long enough.

There are some excellent touches. Slater’s boss (Lloyd Nolan) has a nice line in keeping his office underlings in check, chalet hostess (Moira Lister) is all style and snip, the Russian Col. Berthold (Anton Diffring) clipped and menacing. And the skiing sequences that relate to the picture are well done while the others are decently scenic.   

It’s a shame that Brynner is in brusque form for it gives Britt Ekland in a switch from her comedy breakthroughs not enough to do. Revill is excellent as the former agent who has had his fill of espionage and dreads being pulled back into this murky world. Producer Hal E. Chester clearly spent more on this than on The Comedy Man (1964) but with varying results, top-notch aerial photography but dodgy rear projection. And there are some screenwriting irregularities, such as why conduct the son’s funeral before the father is present.

Catch-Up: Yul Brynner performances previously reviewed in the Blog are The Magnificent Seven (1960), Escape from Zahrain (1962), Flight from Ashiya (1964), Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964), Return of the Seven (1966) and Villa Rides (1968). Britt Ekland movies already covered are: The Happy Thieves (1961), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Machine Gun McCain (1969) and Stiletto (1969).

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